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Romeo and Juliet

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Pearl Theatre Company, in continuing its exploration of classic works, now has in production a play with which you may not be familiar: Romeo and Juliet.

Oh yes, the title may be familiar, but how well do you really know the play itself? What is your understanding of the tragedy that has spawned a million imitators in our modern culture, countless movies, a stage musical in West Side Story, and jokes and adaptations of every sort in every entertainment medium on earth? Regardless, it does matter - waste no time in getting to the Pearl Theatre.

You may be surprised by some of what you find there. Most shocking, perhaps, might be the nature of the love story between the two title characters. If you're expecting endless florid speeches of sumptuously romantic love declaration, look elsewhere. They don't really exist in Romeo and Juliet, and never have.

What director Shepard Sobel has done in directing the piece is directing the complete story, which may automatically fly against most preconceptions. The romance between the young Juliet (Rachel Botchan) and Romeo (Christopher M. Rivera) plays but one part in the story; Romeo and Juliet is every bit as much about the warring Montague and Capulet families, the pains of growing up, and re-examining the truths and standards we have always lived by to see whether or not they continue to apply as time passes.

With all the elements balanced, as they are brilliantly here, the result is a clean, crisp, and unaffected presentation of this classic tragedy. It's one of Shakespeare's best plays for a reason, full of complex relationships, delightful and surprising nuances of plot and character (witness the depth of Friar Laurence and Juliet's Nurse, given top-notch portrayals by John Wylie and Robin Leslie Brown), and, yes, beautiful poetry in its language. Sobel has woven a rich tapestry of the drama here, creating a wonderful production.

Well, mostly wonderful. The one false note in this theatrical symphony is provided by Scott Whitehurst, giving a painfully misguided performance as Romeo's good friend Mercutio. The sense of intimate friendship that must exist between them to propel the story forward (primarily in the vital scene that occurs at the end of this production's first half) is utterly missing from Whitehurst, giving a broad, mostly unfamiliar portrayal. The strength of Rivera's performance saves the story and carries it over the act break, but it's a close call.

All the other performances are tightly intertwined. Rivera and Botchan stand out above the others, but primarily because of their great amount of time onstage; everyone else makes vital contributions to the show and, minus the Mercutio, it's difficult to imagine this production playing as well with any cast other than the one it has. Beowulf Boritt's set, which evokes a large open town squared flanked by the two warring houses, the costumes of Deborah Caney, and Kenny Schutz's lights, likewise, are all strongly integrated with the piece.

The production, therefore, like the story itself, is seamless, and the best one you're likely to see of Romeo and Juliet any time soon. If you know Romeo and Juliet, if you don't, or if you just think you do, there are plenty of reasons to check out the production at the Pearl and experience the show the way it was truly meant to be seen.

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The Pearl Theatre Company
Romeo and Juilet in rotating repertory with Much Ado About Nothing
Through June 16
Running Time: Approximately 3 hours with one intermission
Theatre 80, 80 St. Mark’s Place between 1st and 2nd Avenues
Schedule and Tickets: (212) 598-9802